Image: Terry Holstein
Allen Breed  /  AP
Mine electrician Terry Holstein, 49, stands outside the Charles B. Jarrell General Merchandise store in Dry Creek, W.Va., on Tuesday. Holstein says he had worked at the mine where at least 25 died, but left several years ago because he thought it was unsafe.
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updated 4/6/2010 2:03:45 PM ET 2010-04-06T18:03:45

Down the road from the disaster scene at the Upper Big Branch Mine, two unassuming brick buildings stand side by side, hugging the bank of the Big Coal River. One is the Assembly of God Church; the other is the meeting hall of Local 6608 of the United Mine Workers Union.

When you make your living digging coal, miner Albert T. Bonds says, you'd better have God and family behind you.

"It's a tight bunch — and a religious bunch — that's up and down the river," says Bonds, 51, who worked 27 years underground, eight of them at the Massey Energy Co. mine in nearby Montcoal, where 25 were killed and four still missing in an explosion Monday. "And it's a good place to grow up and be."

But to grow up here is to know that death, massive and swift, can come at any time. It hit home four years ago, when 12 miners died at the Sago Mine in the northeastern corner of the state, and again Monday when methane gas apparently ignited, causing the blast.

Benny R. Willingham, who died in Monday's explosion, was just five weeks from retirement. His daughter, Michelle McKinney, says he was looking forward to a Virgin Island cruise, but was also prepared for death.

Video: Desperate hours drag on for mining families "He talked about it all the time. He said if the Lord come and got him, he's ready," she said Tuesday as she clutched a photo of her parents and their youngest grandson. "He was a family man and he loved the Lord. We know where he's at, but we still want him to come back."

In isolated places like Raleigh County, there has never been much of a choice besides coal, timber and low-paying service jobs.

"That's what you get when you live in this area," said Terry Holstein, 49, a mine electrician. "Because that's all we have."

Conveyor belts behind homes
Unincorporated towns — neighborhoods really — cling to the banks of the Big Coal and up into the surrounding hollows. Covered conveyor belts snake up the sawtooth hills behind the clusters of houses, illuminating the moutainsides like strings of Christmas lights at night.

Holstein was supposed to start his underground shift at the Oak Hill mine at 5 a.m. Tuesday, but his boss told him to come in when he felt like it. At 7:15, he was just arriving at Charles B. Jarrell General Merchandise in Dry Creek to buy his day's supply of cigarettes: three packs of USA Full Flavors.

Video: Author on Massey His boss "wanted to make sure our heads was right and stuff before we went in there," Holstein said as he stood on the store's cinderblock porch. "I wanted to be safe about what I'm doing and make sure I really wanted to go up there and do my job, and that I could do it right and safe."

As a herd of painted horses grazed on a hillside studded with redbud and dogwood trees in the slowly lifting mist, miners filed into the Jarrell store, their work pants striped with the telltale orange reflective tape, their rough hands stained with coal dust that can never be fully scrubbed off. The store, with its creaky wooden floors and dust-stained American flag, stocks everything from chewing tobacco and hose clamps to 50-pound salt blocks and apple deer corn for hunting season.

The oldest continuously run business in the county, it also doubles as Dry Creek's Post Office.

Although the names of the dead had yet to be officially released Tuesday morning, store manager Lavon Collins was sure each would be a familiar one. Already, regular takers of her ham and Colby sandwiches had failed to show.

Slideshow: Deadly blast (on this page) "I usually have all kinds of guys," she said, her eyes brimming with tears. "I'm heartbroken."

Coal pays the mortgages on homes and the monthly payments on shiny new pickups, often bearing "Friends of Coal" stickers. Even though Massey Energy and some of its mining methods have stirred controversy, most here support the company and accuse outsiders of trying to divide the community with their criticisms.

At Flint's Hardware in Sylvester, just 8 miles north of Montcoal, miners' uniforms hung on the walls, equipment waiting to be purchased.

"We probably know 90 percent of the men," said Betty Taylor, who has worked there for eight years. "It's terrible. ... People are just devastated. They don't know what to say, what to do."

At Libby's City Grill in Whitesville, the accident was the talk of every breakfast table, and owner James Scott was grieving his own loss. The family learned late Monday that his 58-year-old uncle, Deward Scott of Montcoal, was among the dead.

Deward Scott had spent his whole career in the mines except for a brief stint to teach karate — a skill he'd learned in the Army. But neither his uncle nor his customers talked much about their work.

"I never heard anyone say anything about the mine, good or bad," James Scott said. "You just don't talk about it."

The tragedy binds everyone, said patron John Bell, 65, a retired schoolteacher from Whitesville.

"It's just like 9/11," he said. "I didn't know anybody personally, but the whole country was feeling it. We're all a part of it."

Larry Asbury, a retired miner from Sylvester, said his son is the director of a Massey mine-rescue team, but he hasn't talked to him since the explosion.

"This is rare, this many deaths," he said. "There's death in the mines every day, but not like this."

Asbury, 69, was an underground miner for 27 years and said he tried not to think about the danger, the fear.

"You didn't, or you wouldn't work," said Asbury, who suffered back, neck and head injuries when he was pinned against a mine rib in 1992. "And if you want to live in your own home, you'll work in the mines."

"God put coal up there," agreed Teddy Jarrell, 45, who works at a paint and body shop but whose father was a miner. "He give us but one way to get it out, that's it. God put the coal up there for us to get out to survive. So that's the way you get it out — take the mountain off."

Video: Expert's take There is a pride among miners that seems born of inevitability, or resignation. When you have no other choice, you can rage against fate, or embrace it.

"A coal miner is a rare breed," said Bonds, who switched to aboveground work at a coal preparation plant in 2006. "They're somewhat like a soldier, I think. Because every time you go underground, there's always a slight possibility you might not come out. But that's the occupation you've chosen. That's how you earn your living and feed your family."

Holstein, a father of five grown children, was shaken by Monday's explosion. But he has known for years that he could die "anytime, anywhere."

"You just put it in the back of your head and go on."

So on Tuesday morning, Holstein grabbed his lunch pail and said goodbye to his wife, Cassandra.

"Be careful," she told him. "I'll see you this evening."

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Mine blast in West Va.

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  1. President Barack Obama walks past crosses, representing the 29 coal miners killed at the Upper Big Branch Mine explosion, during a memorial service for them in Beckley, West Virginia, Sunday, April 25. (Jason Reed / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin asks for a moment of silence a week after 29 miners died in an explosion at the Upper Big Branch mine at the State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. on Monday, April 12. (Bob Bird / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Jerry Bearfield, Jaden Clemons, 3, his sister Gabrielle Clemons, 4, their grandmother Gladys Clemons, and Jerry's brother Randy Bearfield take part in a national moment of silence in Whitesville, W.Va. on Monday. (Amy Sancetta / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. People pray at Eccles Baptist Church in Eccles, W.Va., on Sunday, April 11. The town of Eccles has its own history and experience with mining disasters. In an explosion at the Eccles mine in 1914, over 100 people died. Twelve years later, another 19 died in another explosion. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Jariah Pack comforts Lynette Hinton as the pause in front of the casket of miner William Roosevelt Lynch during his funeral in Beckley, W.Va. on Sunday. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Community members gather at Marsh Fork High School in Glen Daniel, W.V., on Friday, April 9 for a candlelight vigil to honor the fallen miners. (Chad A. Stevens / milesfrommaybe Productions) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Michelle McKinney, right, is comforted by friends and family during a funeral service for her father, Benny Ray Willingham, at Mullens Pentecostal Holiness Church in Mullens, W.Va., on Friday. Benny Willingham was among those killed in an explosion at Massey Energy Co.'s Upper Big Branch mine. (Carolyn Kaster / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. These miners were killed in the explosion on April 5. From top left: William Roosevelt Lynch, Deward Allan Scott, Howard "Boone" Payne, Steven Harrah, Benny Willingham, Ronald Maynor, Carl Acord, Robert Clark, Gary Quarles and John Atkins. (Courtsey of The Register-Herald) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. People gather outside Armstrong Funeral Home in Whitesville, W.Va., on Thursday, April 8, during a visitation for miner Deward Allan Scott. (David Maxwell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Massey Energy Complex in Montcoal, W.Va. (Craig Cunningham / Charleston Daily Mail via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Miranda Tuck, 10, holds a sign in front of her home in Eunice, W.Va., on Thursday. Standing behind her is her grandfather, Henry Ray Aliff, Sr. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Edna Asbury wipes tears from her eyes as she sits with other breakfast club members in Whitesville, W.Va., on Thursday at the City Diner where they watched a news report that rescue operations had been suspended at the Upper Big Branch mine. (Ed Reinke / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin, right, and Joe Main, second from left, of the Mine Safety and Health Administration, talk during a press conference on Thursday. (Matt Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Community members participate in a prayer service for the miners and their families at the New Life Assembly Chuch on Wednesday, April 7. (Kayana Szymczak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Gov. Manchin hugs Pam Napper, the mother of deceased coal miner Josh Napper, along with his girlfriend, Jennifer Ziegler, seen in red, on Wednesday at a candlelight vigil in Cabin Creek, W.Va. Napper was among the 25 miners killed on Monday. His uncle, Timmy Davis Sr., and his cousin, Cory Davis, also died in the explosion. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A crowd gathers for a candlelight vigil, in Oak Hill, W.Va., on Wednesday for Willam Roosevelt Lynch, a miner killed in the blast. (Jon C. Hancock / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Community members, friends, and family participate in a vigil held for the dead miners in front of the Whitesville Elementary School in Whitesville, W.Va., on Wednesday. (Kayana Szymczak / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. A young boy is comforted as he cries during a candlelight vigil for the miners on Wednesday. (David Maxwell / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A large drill sits above Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch mine in Montcoal on Wednesday. The drill had already made one hole and was working on a second to vent trapped gas. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Edgar Persinger of Beckley, W.Va., sells coal miner work outfits out of his van on Wednesday. Persinger, who has been selling the clothing for 30 years, estimates that 90 percent of his business is with miners who work for Massey. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. A coal miner speaks on Wednesday about fellow miners who died at Massey's Upper Big Branch mine. (Bob Bird / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Gov. Manchin explains drilling locations on a map of the Upper Big Branch mine on Wednesday. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. Massey Energy Co.'s sprawling Upper Big Branch mine includes the mine below and conveyor belts and pipes above ground. (Bob Bird / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. Michelle McKinney hugs Jeannie Sanger after speaking with the media Tuesday about Benny Willingham, one of the miners killed. Willingham was Sanger's brother and Michelle's father. (Michael Henninger / Zuma Press) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. Trevor Quarles, 11, and Rabekka Quarles, 9, watch news reports about the explosion at their home in Naoma, W.Va., on Tuesday. Their father, Gary Quarles, was among those killed. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Massey Energy CEO Don Blankenship speaks to reporters in Montcoall on Tuesday. (Haraz N. Ghanbari / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Michelle McKinney on Tuesday shares a photo of her father, Benny Willingham, one of the miners killed. (Matt Sullivan / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Signs like this one appeared around Montcoal after Monday's disaster. (Mark Humphrey / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. Kevin Stricklin, left, an administrator with the federal Mine Safety and Health Administration, speaks alongside Gov. Joe Manchin at a press conference on Tuesday. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. A note is posted Tuesday at the Marsh Fork Worship Center in Eunice, W.Va., near the Upper Big Branch coal mine. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  31. Authorities survey the scene at the Upper Big Branch mine on Monday. The underground coal mine has a history of violations for not properly ventilating highly combustible methane gas, safety officials said. (Jon C. Hancock / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  32. Families and friends wait alongside emergency personnel in Montcoal on Monday. (Jon C. Hancock / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  33. Emergency vehicles leave the entrance to Massey Energy's Upper Big Branch Coal Mine on Monday. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  34. Billy Pettry, Caden Gray and Brandon Gray sit on the steps of the Marsh Fork Worship Center in Eunice, W.Va., on Monday. "As miners we always look out for one another," said Pettry, a retired coal miner of 20 years who says he is on disability with black lung. (Jeff Gentner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  35. Jenny Waycaster of Montcoal waits Monday for news of her son, Ken Lambert, following the explosion. (Bob Bird / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  36. Ambulances and other emergency vehicles gather outside the mine on Monday shortly after the explosion. (Jon C. Hancock / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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